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This article was first published in Business Insider Australia

For leaders accustomed to numbers, metrics and results, the abstract concept of “organisational change capability” is at times hard to grasp, much less enact. This is a problem in a world where change is one of the few certainties in the business cycle. The challenge is amplified in larger organisations where leaders are further removed from frontline employees where the rubber of change hits a performance road often marked out by annual targets. The organisation’s culture or collective mindsets and behaviours often dictate success or failure, more than the leader’s strategy. What are the traits of a change-capable organisation? Below are six cultural traits that can make change a reality.

1. A highly team-oriented mindset

People that care deeply about the team’s success adopt change faster than those who care predominately about themselves. If the change clearly benefits the team, they’ll get on board. They know what benefits the team, will inevitably benefit them. They want to be on the winning team.

As organisations have many teams within them, it is also important that the team-oriented mindset applies to the whole organisation. Cross-functional teams and communities of practice that span divisions can nurture team orientation outside one’s own patch.

People become team-oriented when they:

  • Know their peers personally and professionally
  • Understand the value of their peers and other teams within the business
  • Are highly engaged in the organisation’s vision and strategy
  • See commonalities between themselves and their peers – such as having aligned purpose and consistently demonstrated cultural norms

2. Ambitious organisational goals and personal stretch goals

Change capable organisations clearly answer that life-defining question: why are we here? And the answer is powerful, yet scarily challenging.

Big, Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) as they’re often termed, bring people together and motivate them to inject passion, energy and teamwork into daily efforts to realise major achievements and avoid failure. If the goal is too easy, it won’t necessitate a sizeable behaviour change.

  • Choose an exciting goal you think is achievable for the team or organisation, then double it or broaden it to have a bigger market, industry or societal impact.
  • Ensure every team member has a definitive ‘stretch goal’ in their objectives. This should scare them a tad but with your encouragement and support as their leader, they’ll get motivated. Better yet, if they achieve it, their confidence and engagement will sky-rocket.

3. Relentless improvement

The change-capable org not only knows that business improvement is necessary to achieve their ambitious goals, they have a relentless passion and pride for upgrading.

When problems, churn, inefficiency and frustration arise, many teams respond by venting, complaining or simply going quiet and accepting the pain as the status quo. For the improvement-focused, change-capable team, however, this spells an opportunity and a chance to make a difference. It triggers them to pull affected people together, define the problem, brainstorm and identify options to present to leaders.

Leaders nurture this culture in the way they frame problems to direct reports, focusing language on the future instead of lamenting the past.

For example:

  • Instead of saying: “Who’s to blame for this?” Say: “How should we do this better next time?”

Leveraging the team’s strengths and orienting them to the future is motivating and empowering. Highlighting weakness freezes momentum.

  • Instead of saying: “How could this have happened?” Say: “What’s the best outcome from here?”

The past cannot be changed, future focus drives progress and efficiency

  • Instead of saying: “Let’s talk more about the problem” Ask a team member to lead the fix and say: “Consult the team and come back to me with at least three options to improve this and the pros and cons of each”

This empowers team members to create and own the solution which will also keep them accountable for success later.

4. Valued, inspiring leaders

When we think of inspiring leadership, we often think of world leaders like Martin Luther King Jnr, Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama. You may not realise but many of their traits are present in everyday organisational leaders.

However, to be truly inspiring, you don’t just need some of their traits – you need ALL of them. The traits include:

  • They have a clear vision for change – to create something better
  • They communicate their vision with clarity, bringing it to life with relatable examples
  • They are passionate about their cause and express emotion as they know that’s what drives them and others to action
  • They genuinely care about people – not just those close to them but society and humanity more broadly
  • They value respect but can compromise being liked as they know change is controversial and will ruffle feathers

Because of these traits, inspiring leaders create a mass of loyal followers and are highly trusted. So when the time comes to change, their followers move forward decisively.

5. Effective followership is valued and nurtured

Watch the YouTube video First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy and you’ll see, that a lone person is not a leader until the followers arrive and ‘first followers’ play a key role in proving the value and motivating others to join the tribe.

All leaders need trusted lieutenants, that is first followers who have the trust of the broader team and will jump on board change quickly, thus bringing others along with them.
Nurture your first followers by:

  • Identifying who they are. They may not be in your leadership team. They could be formal or informal leaders of teams, experts and team assistants who have broad networks and exert influence.
  • Bringing them into your inner circle by involving them in strategic planning early and often
  • Building personal relationships and trust with them
  • When change looms, seek their formal commitment and support early and address their reservations
  • Reward and keep them highly engaged so they sustain the role

6. Effective communication and collaboration networks

Communication comes in many forms. Those that rely on plain, non-engaging formats like email and think that communication is top-down or one-way, usually struggle to rally the troops to shift.
Just as contagions thrive and expand with human interaction, culture evolves with communication and collaboration. Without it, there is no culture, just individuals with personal mindsets and behaviours. Pull the individuals together and a culture will be cultivated.

The form of that culture is influenced by everyone within it as they share their thoughts. Leaders tend to be more influential in shaping culture as they garner the attention of so many when they speak and act. This is the case with formal leaders (e.g. the CEO, GM etc.) as well as informal leaders (e.g. the team assistants or the 30-year veterans who know everyone).

To evaluate the effectiveness of your communication and collaboration networks, the key questions to ask are:

  • Are we providing regular opportunities for formal leaders to speak and act in front of team members so they can shift behaviours toward the target culture?
  • Are we providing regular opportunities for leaders to listen to team members at all levels (i.e. not through the middle-management filter) to truly understand the culture’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • Who in the organisation epitomises our target culture and how can we connect them with more people in the organisation?
  • What creative, new channels can we establish to facilitate the flow of awareness, knowledge and desire to affect change?

Remember, leaders’ behaviour sets the cultural tone, so ask yourself: what must I do to introduce and galvanize these traits in my organisation?

By Huw Thomas, Principal Consultant, Blue Seed Consulting

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